Palestine's argument: Mecca and beyond

Khaled Hroub
6 March 2007

The Saudi-mediated pact between Fatah and Hamas marks the return of Palestine as an arena for regional rivalry, says Khaled Hroub.

In the month since the agreement in Mecca, after the summit of 6-8 February 2007 which broke the bloody deadlock between Fatah and Hamas, the implications for Palestine and the region have become increasingly apparent. The "Mecca agreement" may have registered in the international media mainly for its role in the formation of a Palestinian national-unity government after many torments and trials; but the significance of the pact is to be found as much among the regional balance of power around Palestine as among the Palestinian people themselves.

The most evident success belongs to Riyadh, in hosting and facilitating the agreement between the two main Palestinian movements. In contrast to this Saudi regional triumph, Iran and Syria have many reasons to be wary. Hamas has represented one of the strongest cards in Tehran and Damascus's broader regional confrontation with the United States and Israel; now this seems to be slipping away without any gains in return. Egypt, for its part, is not particularly pleased either, as it sees the long-awaited (and still far from secure) reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas being engineered far from Cairo's hands. This means a further blow to the already diminishing Egyptian role in regional politics. Israel, meanwhile, is confused and still in the process of making up its mind about whether this development is a welcome step in terms of its own interests.

The diplomatic dance

In this mosaic, the satisfaction of Riyadh may be easiest to grasp. Saudi involvement in Fatah-Hamas politics implies an injection of a measure of moderation that can in principle circumvent rising Iranian influence (particularly on Hamas). At the same time, the terms agreed at Mecca have been rightly seen as on the whole favouring Hamas. Hamas, after all, did not succumb to the three Israeli-American conditions for opening contact: recognising Israel, denouncing violence, and acknowledging the previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. In addition to Hamas's own firmness on these points, Fatah's wish to see the Saudis having a stronger influence over Hamas than the Iranians  was a major driving-force in their acceptance of only slight modifications in Hamas's positions.

Mecca came after a series of efforts to bring Fatah and Hamas onto common ground - mediated by Egypt, Qatar and Syria - had gone nowhere. Hamas saw the Egyptians as being tacitly partial, siding with Fatah and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Moreover, Egypt's stance is governed by its national-security concerns, particularly regarding the situation in Gaza and the possibility of any spill-over of violence across the border to Egypt. Cairo sees a Gaza ruled by Hamas - a sister organisation to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - in effect as a nightmare that it wants to end.

Fatah's attitude towards the Syrians is a mirror-image of Hamas's towards Egypt. It sees Damascus as pro-Hamas, and against the Oslo accords with Israel which it negotiated. The meetings between Hamas and Fatah leaders in Damascus before Mecca yielded no practical outcome. The Qatari mediation was also short-lived, partly because of Fatah suspicion that Qatar is one of the Hamas leaders' "backyards" (the emirate hosted them for a few years after their expulsion from Jordan in 1999). Iran, for its part, was not interested in reconciling Hamas with Fatah and exercised no effort on this front.

Against this background, the Saudis held several cards: they were equally distanced from Fatah and Hamas, they retained regional and diplomatic leverage, and they could be credited with the ability to "market" any agreement to the Americans and the west in general. The Saudis themselves were less concerned with the contents of any such agreement than with countering rising Iranian influence in the region by securing a wide entry-point to the heart of the "Palestinian matter".

The Saudi intervention also came at a favourable moment to exploit a sudden, sharp fall among popular Arab support to Iran - something Iranians gradually built by their confrontational stance against the US on the nuclear issue and by their backing of Hizbollah in its war against Israel in July-August 2006. The retreat of this sentiment was notable after Iran's jubilation over the hanging of Saddam Hussein and, more widely, its alliance with the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government that carried out the execution. By seizing this unexpected moment of anti-Iranian sentiment among many Arabs and Palestinians, the Saudis could also rely on concern within Hamas ranks that a strong association with Iran at such a tricky moment would damage the movement's popularity.

Palestine and the region

The implication of the foregoing analysis is that the formation of the Palestinian unity government after Mecca has little to do with the heart of the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis and much to do with regional politics and rivalry. The construction of such a government might indeed have been expected to have a direct impact on "peace talks", but in fact the greater consequence is somewhere else: on Iran.

The Americans and the Israelis are neither ready nor in a serious mood to undertake concrete steps along the track of peace talks with the Palestinians, regardless of the internal make-up of the new Palestinian leadership. The Americans' current obsession is divided between Iraq and Iran. The post-Mecca visit of Condoleezza Rice to Palestine, Israel and other countries in the region is a mere PR exercise that seeks to pacify Arab anger over US policies.

The shaky Israeli government has suffered from a series of scandals of all sorts at all levels after the non-victory and almost-defeat in the summer war against Hizbollah. It too lacks solid ground on which to move towards peace. The little energy that this exhausted government has left is expended in drawing scenario options vis-à-vis what is seen as Iran's definite achievement of nuclear power. There is no Israeli offering on the "peace talks" front that could display a convincing degree of seriousness for the Palestinians. Even the much-discussed roadmap drawn up by the "quartet" (United States, Russia, European Union, and United Nations) in 2002-03 has been on the shelf for years, covered in the dust of numerous Israeli reservations and now with the additional three unreachable conditions imposed on the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Before Hamas's election in January 2006, Israel was not interested in dealing with Mahmoud Abbas, the most moderate Palestinian politician, and did not consider him a partner for peace. How then - many Palestinians rightly ask - could Israel accept a government led by Hamas to become such a partner? Even if Hamas met overnight all the conditions imposed on it, it would hardly secure the confidence of Israelis, who only trusted Mahmoud Abbas after decades of moderation.

The deeper meaning of Mecca is that the Saudis have thrown their heavy diplomatic (and potentially financial) weight to break the Palestinian impasse almost certainly with prior American consent - or at least with the assurance that Washington would not be displeased with an outcome that could cut Iranian influence on Hamas. Yet the American official line so far has been to continue to refuse dealing with any Palestinian government led by Hamas (or power-shared by it), unless it accepts the three conditions (Israel, violence, previous agreements). By imposing those high-ceiling conditions on Hamas, the Americans and the Europeans have made it difficult for themselves and for Hamas to meet somewhere in between.

Thus, the green light to the Saudis is also a desperate invitation to a pro-American third party to intervene. If that were accepted, American, Israeli and European concerns about the seemingly unstoppable rise of Iranian influence could still be seriously allayed on the Palestinian front - and there would be no visible backtrack on the three conditions, to avoid giving Hamas the appearance of victory. One component of such an intervention is that humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people could be resumed by different channels (Saudi and European), while the Americans pretend to look the other way. This would be far from an overall political solution, but in the short term the moral dilemma of punishing the Palestinian people for electing Hamas would at least come to an end.

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